Sunny, The Story of Bobby Hebb’s Magical Composition …his tours with the Beatles, Jimmy Page and the Yardbirds, and the evolution of one of the most significant compositions in pop music history.
By Joe Viglione
“Sunny” electrified audiences in 1966 when Bobby Hebb toured with the Beatles, the most influential group in pop music history, bringing to that series of shows a hit as powerful as anything written or recorded by the Fab 4.
From August 12 – August 29, 1966 during that Beatles/Hebb tour, the performer garnered appreciation from the audience on the same level as the Beatles. With the opening guitar twang/strum that preceded Hebb’s voice, and with Bobby’s authoritative pitch singing the magic word “Sunny,” waves of applause and shrieks of approval cascaded on whichever stadium or concert hall these artists appeared at.
It was an avalanche of acclamation!
That both Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny” and Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” – each Top 25 Songs of the 20th Century – were in the repertoire of this final Beatles’ tour is a remarkable story in itself. Given the thousands of recorded versions of both titles fifty years after these two great composers met it is appropriate to consider what an iconic tour that this set of concerts would turn out to be. The underground represented by Boston University faves and Epic recording artist Barry and the Remains, the Cyrkle with two big hits themselves – Paul Simon’s “Red Rubber Ball” along with the more subdued “Turn Down Day,” and the Ronnie Spector-less Ronettes, a program that would smash records in the new millennium.
The story of “Sunny” reaches back to the November 23, 1963 passing of Hal Hebb, Bobby’s mentor and older brother who performed in the band The Marigolds with the legendary Johnny Bragg after Bragg’s Prisonaires morphed into The Sunbeams and then the Marigolds, both latter groups with Hal Hebb as a member.
Hal and Bobby were in a tap-dancing trio in their very younger days, called – appropriately enough – The Typewriter Brothers. Along with their family’s Hebb Kitchen Cabinet Orchestra touring the streets of Nashville, Bobby Hebb had status as a veteran performer before touring with the likes of the Beatles and then Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck in the Yardbirds, all in 1966,
The day after John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, Hal Hebb – as security at a nightclub in Nashville, was murdered. Bobby told this writer that he immersed himself in Gerald Wilson’s wonderful 1961 jazz album, You Better Believe It after his older brother’s tragic passing. There is some discussion on what the exact inspiration for the song “Sunny” was – the composer giving interesting insight that it was about “a better day.”
A four minute and ten second song by the group Torpedo Boyz utilizes an interview Bobby granted them for the song. In it he tells the story of the creation of “Sunny.” You can hear it by going to this link Tiny URL dot com / trustintegritypurelove http://tinyurl.com/trustintegritypurelove
According to Wikipedia: “The Torpedo Boyz are a German/Japanese electronic/musical duo. They have released several albums, most notably Headache Music (released 23 Jan 2007. Trust, Integrity and Pure Love” is from the critically acclaimed Headache Music cd.
PURPLE HAZE, PURPLE RAIN, PURPLE SKY
The transcript of Bobby Hebb’s telling of the creation of his song “Sunny reads like this:
“I was under the influence of Tennessee Sipping Whiskey, highly under the influence (laughs.) As a matter of fact I was so under the influence that I was afraid to go to sleep. And I looked up and I saw a purple sky. I had my guitar in my hand, and without touching a pencil, I started writing it. And that’s how the song was born.
The Torpedo Boyz then add a repeating echo to the word “sky” after “purple sky” and “writing it” – putting the emphasis on key components Bobby Hebb notes to what transpired when he wrote “Sunny.”
Hebb continues on the recording “I hit the nail right on the head, because that’s exactly what I did. That’s a musician’s way of saying hello. Or an entertainer’s way of saying “hello, I like that.” So you build it on trust, integrity and pure love. So, this is what I was building, I said “we want that.”
The Torpedo Boyz ingeniously build a dance beat and incorporate Bobby’s story of the creation of his masterpiece, “Sunny,” by taking his advice, zeroing in on the key phrase, “Trust, Integrity and Pure Love,” what Bobby built “Sunny” on, the Torpedo Boyz utilize that philosophy as a title for their song on Bobby Hebb’s composing the song “Sunny” and adding a thick layer of guitar, flute and beats to generate a contemporary re-telling of the story of “Sunny.” They repeat Bobby’s pronunciation of “Trust, Integrity and Pure Love” over the layers of sound, echoing the word “love” at the end. It’s brilliant.
HIGH TIDE AND GREEN GRASS
Sometime in the 1990s and early 2000’s Bobby was working on a
composition entitled “low tide.” As he lived in Rockport and on Cape Ann the beach would, of course, be fertile material for songwriting. Bobby shelved the song because he had felt the term “low tide” had negative connotations. “Sunny” – of course – is the ultimate in optimism.
Whatever the “inspiration” for the composition “Sunny” what is true is that it has every element of genius in it. With Bobby’s blind parents being music teachers who also were busy leading the aforementioned Hebb Kitchen Cabinet Orchestra, young Bobby Hebb was infused with skills that made him what his musician comrade Nat Simpkins stated was “one of the most musical men on the planet.”
Bobby told me that if you play “Sunny” once a day you can learn to play just about any song. It is a textbook displaying the man’s skills as a composer, lyricist and maker of grand melody. That so many musicians are actually teaching music on YouTube with “Sunny” as their song of choice, and with respected musicians like Greg Howe having other guitarists play along to his rhythmic track of “Sunny,” or jazz greats from Pat Martino and John Scofield to Oscar Peterson and Eugene Cicero exploring the nuances of “Sunny,” to the multiple versions and remixes of James Brown’s interpretation (both in the studio and live,) is a testament to Bobby Hebb’s ability to reach every single genre of music with one powerful musical statement: “Sunny.”
Frank Sinatra and Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Tom Jones, James Brown and Marva Whitney – all paired p to have fun with “Sunny.” And, what is fascinating – is that one of the major duos of all time – Sonny Bono and Cher (Cherilyn Sarkisian) – recorded their versions separately. Cher in the studio, Sonny on his TV show. (Yes, we are planning a dance mix of Sonny and Cher performing “Sunny,” and why not?)
These musical pairings of legends shows how “Sunny” and its happy-go-lucky theme and musical movements brought and still brings people together, as well as sharpening the musical skills of the musicians playing the song and it’s genius structure.
The song “Sunny” begins with the stand at attention drum roll that gives a hint of Bobby’s time in the navy as a member of the group The Pine Island Pirates. Later, Sly Stone would use the same drum roll sound to get attention at the opening of one of his finest songs, “Stand” by Sly and the Family Stone. Don’t think it was a coincidence, genius breeds genius, and genius also knows to borrow from other genius. Listen to Bobby Hebb tuck the genius 007 theme into the ascending line after he sings “one so true, I love you” in “Sunny.” A key note of interest, when Bobby Hebb recorded his follow-up album to the Sunny disc, Love Games on Epic, Bobby and his producer, James Flemming Rasmussen, utilized the large Epic studio with Sly Stone recording There’s A Riot Going On in the other studio.
Bobby’s Pine Island Pirates actually played for the leader of the Republic of China, Chiang Kai-shek and his wife, Madame Chiang Kai-shek, while their ship, the USS Pine Island (AV 12) was in that region. Bobby noted to me that one night in the crow’s nest Madame came aboard the ship and gave Bobby a nod, recognizing him as being a musician in the band she had watched perform. Bobby said that there was an etiquette, that the sailors were not supposed to turn their heads and look at the government officials while on duty, but that Madame Chiang Kai-shek allowed the “connection.” Bobby’s retelling of the story made me feel that he was deeply honored to have performed for her and her husband, and that she acknowledged him later.
THE FIRST DEMO RECORDING
Bernard Purdie, Ben Tucker and Bobby Hebb recorded the original demo of “Sunny,” early 1965. Purdie telling this journalist “the minute we recorded it, we knew it was a hit.”
Bernard should know, as one of the most recorded drummers in rock and soul history, on music spanning the decades with Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and notably on Steely Dan’s hit of “Deacon Blues,” Pretty Purdie has that instinct, that valuable insight. When Bobby got a deal with Philips / Mercury Records, he produced a series of demos on acoustic guitar, a second demo of “Sunny” emerging from those recordings prior to the hit version produced by Jerry Ross, arranged by the great Joe Renzetti and with notables Nick Ashford, Valerie Simpson and Melba Moore on backing vocals.
It was the hit rendition, of course, which led to the 1966 Beatles tour.
On August 17, 1966 the Beatles and Bobby Hebb performed at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. Bobby was backed up by the legendary Barry (Tashian) and the Remains. A five minute and fourteen second onrush and foray of “Sunny” with Bobby Hebb and the Remains exploded into the night, and is on our boxed set, SUNNY: The Bobby Hebb Anthology. Forty eight seconds of applause conclude the song along with Bobby and Barry’s guitars. As stated at the opening of this chapter, the first second of the performance has a guitar strum, on the second moment Bobby says the word “Sunny” to the same avalanche of applause that would greet Beatles’ songs. It introduced the #1 Cashbox hit (#2 on Billboard Magazine,) song of the summer of 1966 to Beatles/Hebb fandom, already quite fond of the tune, enjoying the melody as it splashed on them at this major event.
Hebb’s vocal is amazing live in concert, on the same stage that the
Beatles would take later in the night. Smooth and full of emotion, it’s a tender reading at the onset – Bobby felling “ten feet tall” (a theme in another song of Hebb’s, “Treetop High.”) Two and a half minutes into the live show’s rendering (the 45 version goes to 2:45) Bobby and the Remains go into a Ray Charles’-styled vamp, a soulful strut with the Remains keeping it light, but together and building. At 3:32 in Bobby’s amazing voice goes to a Little Richard high (Richard Penniman having been a friend of Hebb’s,) and then a gritty “one more time now” exploding into the Sunny chorus
again, a total rave-up with the Remains, one of the best groups in the
business, backing up their friend Bobby Hebb, one of the hottest
performers of the year, on a stage with the Beatles, the biggest band in history. It doesn’t get any better than that.
In 1966 it would have been unfathomable to think that
entire books would be written on now-iconic tunes such as “Louie,
Louie,” (two of them, one in 1993 by David Marsh – “Louie, Louie – The History and the Mythology of the World’s Most Famous Rock and Roll Song,” and one by a live drummer from the band the Kingsmen, Dick Peterson AuthorHouse (November 4, 2005),) or even a standard as explored in 2003’s Amazing Grace: The Story of America’s Most Beloved Song by Steve Turner, the fellow who tackled every single known Beatles song in a A Hard Day’s Write: The Stories Behind Every Beatles’ Song, (updated edition, 2005.)
Think about this for a moment. “Amazing Grace,” according
to Wikipedia, “is a Christian Hymn published in 1779, with words
written by the English poet and clergyman John Newton.”
187 years later in 1966 an inspirational “sunshine” song from Bobby Hebb was ever-present on the pop, country and rhythm and blues charts, the undercurrent of the song, one of hope for a better day. It resonated – and five decades later there are hundreds of new interpretations finding a new home on YouTube, artists from Korea to Serbia to Japan to Russia recording the song– musicians spanning the globe – more than a mere echo, the soul-stirring love generated by Bobby Hebb’s masterpiece inspiring dance mix dj’s, artists who love to sample the sunshine spirit, long after a song like “Stormy” by Dennis Yost and the Classics IV being inspired by “Sunny.” The hook – “bring back that Sunny day!” is majestic, uplifting and a pure tribute to Bobby Hebb …with the Classics IV also cutting their own rendition of “Sunny.”
Prior to Bobby’s passing, two gospel versions of “Sunny” were
recorded, one by Pat Watson, another by Bobby’s cousin, Pastor Rosetta Swain. Bobby was in the studio during the recording of Swain’s production with Pastor Rosetta changing the title (and song itself) from “Sunny” to “Jesus” – with permission.
Just part of the legacy that started with Bobby in the studio with David Pike in 1965 when Pike recorded his beautiful “Sunny” on the Jazz for the Jet Set disc on Atlantic. Bringing it all full circle, Bobby Hebb was in the studio with David Pike in 1965, had his own hit with the song in 1966, the song hit on Country, R & B and Pop radio, “the trifecta” as Kal Rudman called it in the liner notes, found the song flourishing over multiple musical genres to every musical instrument you can imagine – harmonica, accordion, banjo, Hammond B-3, all enjoying Bobby Hebb’s work and exploring its nuances.
Bobby Hebb performed scat singing on a version of Sunny” in the studio with jazz musician Denny Jiosa in Nashville, and then performed with Jiosa live onstage. Full circle – in the studio with David Pike at the beginning, in the studio with Rosetta Swain and Denny Jiosa as “Sunny” was recreated before Bobby left this world, leaving us with a melody and song that has inspired millions, and will inspire millions more. From Northern Soul to Sunshine Pop the genres, the musicians, the listeners all feel better when “Sunny” is on the radio or keeps repeating in their minds. A happy song, a gift to the world from Bobby Hebb.